“Once there was this girl who
Swore that one day she would be a figure skating champion.
And when she finally made it
She saw some other girl was better
And so she hired some guy to
Club her in the knee cap.”
This verse from the song Headline News, Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of Crash Test Dummies’ Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, nicely sums up what the world thinks about Tonya Harding. She was an incredibly talented skater from a poor background but lost everything when her desperate fight to succeed caused her to orchestrate an attack on her main rival Nancy Kerrigan in the lead up to the 1994 Olympics. Her name has actually become a verb for violently taking out someone you are competing against; Barack Obama famously used it during 2007 Presidential Primaries. Yep, conventional wisdom will tell you that Tonya Harding’s story is one of all consuming ambition and psychotic jealousy.
I, Tonya makes some effort to get to the truth of the matter while acknowledging that this truth is based on the wildly conflicting personal accounts of people that have clearly done some things they don’t want to admit to. The film suggests the Harding herself ‘may’ actually have been innocent of ‘some’ of what she is accused of. Either way it shows more focus on her version of events than most people have previously been interested in.
What the film makers have done is turn this tale from recent history into a real yarn. Nancy Kerrigan has said that she has no interest in seeing the movie having ‘already lived through it’ which is probably just as well as I’m not sure she would appreciate the tone they have taken with what was obviously, for her, a very frightening time. The film doesn’t concentrate on Kerrigan though and some of the people involved on Harding’s side evidently deserve a bit of ribbing. The two main players other than Harding are her ex husband Jeff Gillooly and his moronic friend Shawn Eckhardt who were definitely involved in what happened. As played by Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser they are shown to be real idiots, especially Eckhardt and watching the film you do suspect that this has been greatly exaggerated. At least until you see footage of the real guys over the closing credits. Of course, amusing as it is, this idiocy lead to violence and while it has a lot of fun the film does not shy away from this.
I, Tonya could definitely be classed as a black comedy. It recreates interviews with key people having a great time with the characterisation, its dramatisation of events is OTT and it regularly breaks the fourth wall. It also tackles poverty and domestic abuse though. I had trouble with recent films Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Death of Stalin because they were just too bleak, both of them featuring rape and murder. In these cases the dark outweighed the humour. Child bullying and wife beating is clearly heartbreaking too but the difference with this film is that you get to know the person having the violence perpetrated against them rather than them just being a faceless victim. You see the struggle and the defiance.
Of course that person is Tonya herself and highlighting what she suffered is one part of the story that has not been told before. Margot Robbie’s lead performance is excellent and while she does not convince as a 15 year old in the early scenes, she totally deserves her first Academy Award nomination. Her Tonya is aggressive and temperamental and at least a little amoral (even if she didn’t advocate the attack on Kerrigan, she initially helped cover it up) but Robbie keeps her likeable and you stay on her side and enjoy her victories as much as her comeuppance. As the film sets out to establish, Tonya Harding is more than a punchline.
Also Oscar nommed and more likely to win is Allison Janney. As Tonya’s mother Janney is mean and hard, like Nurse Ratched in slippers and a bathrobe. Not likeable but totally compelling. Steven Knight’s script, built around the real interviews it features, is also strong and Craig Gillespie’s direction manages the material well. The film starts to say something about the public’s role in creating scandal and coldly demonising people without consideration of the cost on human lives but this is the one part of it that feels underdeveloped. Essentially I, Tonya is a scrupulous character study of some unscrupulous characters that touches on the destructive nature of aspiration and the incompetent nature of wannabe criminals. Think Black Swan meets Fargo meets Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Highly recommended.
Is this one for the kids?
Is this one for the kids? Not with language that fruity. This apparently was the one thing the real Tonya Harding’s wanted to deny, she claims she was never that potty mouthed, especially to competition officials.
The Ripley Factor:
Tonya Harding is an interesting individual when it comes to gender politics. On the one hand she was a woman who stood up to male aggression but ultimately it was men that destroyed her career. She was fighting against gender expectations and the need to be conventionally attractive but she also might have caused another woman to have her knee cap smashed.
To return to the original criteria around which The Ripley Factor test was written the on screen Harding does well. Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men? Absolutely not. Are the women in the film believable as real people rather than some kickass superhero? Absolutely, they are real people. Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film? Not at all and to some extent she rallys against this with her plea for it to be about the skating not the little dresses. Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism? No, for good or for bad this is a woman’s story.